First of all, I would like to thank all the people who were kind enough to respond – either directly, by email, or by commenting here on the blog – to my latest article in which I was sharing my frustration and discouragement with this line of work. I was quite simply overwhelmed by a wave of sympathy, human warmth and appreciation. Although the basic problems remain (low levels of public interest for a scientific approach to life after life combined with a huge a largely redundant offering of information on the same subject), these messages were extraordinarily helpful in rekindling – at least for the moment – my motivation. I have answered all the messages individually, so here I only wanted to publicly acknowledge such contributions and to express, again, my heartfelt thanks.
Now, in this article I would like to talk about some reflections I have made recently, at the border between philosophy, science and spirituality, on the nature of the self. These reflections have produced an “intuitive image” which I then found very useful in my eternal beginner’s efforts at meditation.
These reflections are grounded in a concept beautifully expressed by philosopher of consciousness Bernardo Kastrup. One of the basic tenets of Dr Kastrup’s thinking is that all we have access to in our experience – I mean everything and anything we can possibly experience – are what he calls “objects in consciousness”. A simple example is the tree I see outside my study’s window. I see the tree and I automatically assume that the tree really exists as a physical, material entity out there. But in fact, if I reflect on this deeply, I realise that all I have access to is my conscious experience of the tree. I can see it, and I can touch it, but doing so only produces conscious experiences: everything and anything I can possibly experience about the tree is an object in my consciousness. I have no guarantee that the tree and the rest of what I assume to be the material world is really out there. If, just like in the movie Matrix, my sensory organs were wired up to some machine, I could be having exactly the same experience, without the tree being there. Now, Dr Kastrup pushes this argument to the extreme: using sophisticated logical arguments, he claims that in order to believe that material reality is really “out there” we need to make an awful lot of unsubstantiated assumptions and therefore claims primacy for consciousness as the ground of being.
We don’t want to follow this thinking now, for it is very complicated indeed and would distract from my own, much simpler reflections. Let’s just recognise the fact that all I can access about “reality” are objects in my consciousness. Interestingly, I would never think of identifying myself with the tree outside my window. Why do I say that? Because we have a very strong tendency of identifying ourselves with our thoughts and emotions, and these too are nothing but objects in consciousness. The point I am making is this: the tree is an object in my consciousness, the thought that my Internet connection has been down for 24 hours is an object in consciousness and the irritation I feel about that is also an object in consciousness. Even the memory of the lovely meal I had last week is just an object in consciousness. At the end of the day, all these very different things are simply conscious experiences.
And yet, instinctively, in my understanding “I”, myself, am my thoughts, emotions, memories. What makes up “me”, my identity is the constant mental chit-chat, the recursive interplay between thoughts, memories and emotions. Many spiritual traditions – Buddhism in particular – aim at helping us realise that this is not true, that we take ourselves for what we are not. In my example, “I” am not my thoughts/memories/emotions just as I am not the tree: all these are objects in my consciousness.
So, if “I” am not any of these things, what am I? I, my reflections go, am the very consciousness within which these objects appear. I am the experiencer. I am pure, naked awareness, containing these objects and yet separated from them. And here comes my “intuitive image”: perceptions of the physical world, thoughts, memories and emotions are like fish drifting in a fish tank. They appear in my field of vision (my consciousness), move about, evolve, and then disappear. I find it useful as an aid to meditation, to try to imagine fewer and fewer fish, and then, hopefully, just still, clear, transparent water.
Until I realised, and that for me was a very big a-ha moment, that I am that very water. I am an infinite ocean of perfectly clear, perfectly transparent, perfectly still water, within which the objects in consciousness that I mistakenly call “myself” and “the world” appear.